"Homo neanderthalensis" by Tiia Monto is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The not-so-dangerous lives of Neanderthals

Nov 19, 2018

By Marta Mirazón Lahr

Injuries are part of everyday life, from a scratch on the skin to a broken bone to a fatal trauma. Although many injuries are accidental, others can arise as a consequence of an individual’s or a group’s behaviour, activity or social norms — characteristics that tell us about societies and the inherent tensions and risks within and between different groups. Writing in Nature, Beier et al.1 provide evidence that challenges the long-standing view2 that Neanderthal populations experienced a level of traumatic injuries that was significantly higher than that of humans. The result calls into question claims2,3 that the behaviour and technologies of Neanderthals exposed them to particularly high levels of risk and danger.

Reports of injuries and deaths are constantly in the news. As well as being drawn to read the stories of individuals, such information is of interest because of what it tells us about our societies. However, to fully understand what might determine the current degree of violence and injuries, we also need to look back at the past and identify the causal underpinnings. But how far back should we look? Arguably, right back to the evolutionary origins of processes that shape behavioural, social and cognitive tendencies and abilities.

Anthropologists study skeletal remains to reconstruct aspects of ancient lives, building an ‘osteobiography’ that casts light on part of the life history of an individual. Skeletons preserve — in the form of holes, misshapen surfaces, bone misalignments and secondary fractures radiating out from a point of impact — a signature of the traumas that resulted in fractured, cut or perforated bones, even if the injuries subsequently healed4,5.

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